FEBRUARY. It might be one of the coldest, bleakest months of the year, but it’s also the shortest – and a time when families out on muddy wintry walks are eagerly on the lookout for the first signs of spring.
Not this year. This year, come February 24 and everyone’s eyes are on the other side of Europe and the shock Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Suddenly it seems a little trite to be chatting blithely about the Chilterns countryside awakening after winter. Instead, we are all glued to the television and the unthinkable images of war engulfing Europe.
As days turn into weeks and weeks turn into months, whole streets and towns are turned into rubble, sparking the biggest refugee crisis since World War II.
The devastation is already reminiscent of the streets of Syria and Iraq, and with families streaming over the border to Poland and other neighbouring countries, the fear is palpable and the threat is real.
How ironic then, that in the same week that war broke out we are visiting the Polish resettlement camp at Northwick Park in Gloucestershire and recalling how a previous Russian invasion more than 80 years ago changed the course of world history.
It’s one of many reminders around the UK of those terrible events from the spring of 1940, made all the more painful by history being repeated so many years later.
Marysia, the wonderful woman we are visiting with, lived briefly in this camp when she first came to England as a teenager after the war – like so many others after a long and arduous journey via Russia, Persia and Africa.
She was seven when the Russian soldiers arrived and her family was deported from their forest home to the icy wastes of Siberia.
After the war, Northwick Park was a brief stopping-off point before she was moved on to Herefordshire, but with many of the Nissen huts used to house families then still in use today for local businesses, in many ways the place looks very like it did more than 70 years ago, bringing memories flooding back.
Many of the Polish families relocated to the UK lived in camps like this for years – including those in Hodgemoor Woods beside Chalfont St Giles, where the camp remained open until 1962.
Indeed by October 1946, around 120,000 Polish troops were quartered in more than 200 such camps across the UK.
All of which is an all-too-vivid reminder that the events being played out in the towns and cities of Ukraine today will have an impact on people’s lives for decades to come.
As the pale skies and dramatic sunsets of February give way to the brighter weather of March, we stumble across a young woman looking a little lost in local woods at sunset.
She has no dog and seems a little disorientated as dusk falls, but when we ask if she is OK she assures us that she is. She’s from Ukraine and adjusting to a new life in the Chilterns, insisting that she is fine.
But as she wanders back to the village, we’re left wondering just how many families will be torn apart by the current conflict – and how many decades it will be before the shockwaves stop reverberating across Europe.
Here, the dawn chorus is beginning to pick up volume as the branches begin to look a little less bare and the first flowers poke through the frost: snowdrops and primroses, later to be followed by the daffodils and bluebells.
Once more photographers across the Chilterns are up with the lark, capturing the sights and sounds of the changing months as hungry badgers and foxes get braver in their hunt for an easy snack and insects and reptiles emerge from their slumbers.
There may still be a chill in the morning air, but the morning dog walk is no longer a battle against the elements.
Regular contributors Sue Craigs Erwin and Lesley Tilson also have their eyes peeled for those spectacular sunsets or rare moments when a bird or insect stays long enough on a twig for the perfect shot.
Deep in the forest, there’s new growth everywhere, with fluffy lichen and moss coating tree barks and warmer weather tempting walkers back out onto footpaths no longer submerged in a sea of mud.
As the weather warms, there’s more time to study the colourful plumage of regular garden visitors, enjoy the first butterflies or spot a muntjac foraging in the woods or a fox returning proudly to its den with breakfast for the family.
We are so lucky to live here: only an hour from central London, yet a haven for wildlife, with a network of thousands of miles of footpaths stretching across the 320 square miles designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
Suddenly, after long grey days of eager anticipation, the natural world seems alive with activity with something new to spot every day, the green shoots and bursting buds a welcome reminder that spring has once again returned with a vengeance.
From historic market towns to sleepy hamlets, this is a landscape dotted with quintessentially English coaching inns, ancient churches and picturesque chalk streams.
It many no longer boast charcoal burners or “bodgers” in the woods, or an abundance of watercress farms and cherry orchards, but it’s still a world of muddy boots and excited dogs, log fires and historic pubs.
In the spring, the air is thick with birdsong in morning and early evening, robins, blackbirds and wrens shouting about territory while the local wood pigeons strut and coo.
There’s frogspawn aplenty in local ponds and nest-building is under way in earnest, though it’s still hard to fully concentrate on all the intimate daily changes in quite the same way it was before the war started to dominate the news agenda.
After the anxieties and distractions of lockdown we are once again free to explore the local landscape fully, yet it feels almost insensitive to be savouring that freedom against the backdrop of the apocalyptic pictures and real-world horror stories emerging from Ukraine.
Pandemic, climate change, war – no wonder our teenagers are worried about the world and find it hard to concentrate in class.
But then just as lockdown gave us time to re-examine our relationship with the natural world, we know too just what an important role nature can play is maintaining or re-establishing our mental health.
Yes, we must do what we can to provide practical help to those fleeing the war, but it’s no bad thing for us to be immersing ourselves in nature again too.
It’s easy to get depressed by the pointlessness, chaos and destruction of war, but perhaps it’s even more important that we celebrate beauty at such a time and remind ourselves of the importance of those small daily delights that still matter so much.
Whether it’s the sounds of woodland creatures stirring in the early morning sunshine, country lanes awash with spring colour, the screech of an owl as dusk falls, the spring lambs gambolling in the fields or a family of little ducklings learning to swim, the Chilterns landscape has the power to soothe our fears and revitalise us to face new challenges.
Our timeless landscape has witnessed its fair share of bloodshed and conflict across the centuries, but the froth of hawthorn blossom in the hedgerows, dancing bluebells in the woods, and nodding poppies in the cornfields remind us that life must go on, and sustain us at times when our spirits are low.
When the news feels overwhelming, there could be no better way of keeping a grip on reality, clearing away the cobwebs and banishing our own fears and anxiety among the bluebell woods and country paths of the Chilterns.
As Melissa Harrison says in her nature diary The Stubborn Light of Things: “It’s the oldest story: the earth coming back to life after its long winter sleep. Yet spring always feels like a miracle when at last it arrives.”
As always, we’d like to give a very big thank you to all the keen local photographers who have allowed us to use their work. If you would like to contribute any pictures, favourite moments or seasonal suggestions, contact firstname.lastname@example.org on email or via our Facebook group page.